The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - David Strat­ton

(PG) ★★★★✩ Lim­ited na­tional re­lease

Lim­ited re­lease

(tbc) ★★★✩✩ Lim­ited na­tional re­lease

THERE was a time when Asian films were never re­leased on com­mer­cial cinema screens. In­deed, be­fore 1951, when Akira Kuro­sawa’s Rashomon won the Golden Lion at Venice and ef­fec­tively in­tro­duced Ja­panese cinema to the West, they were hardly seen at all. Even then the per­ceived wis­dom was that Western au­di­ences wanted to see ac­tion films from Asia, so samu­rai movies were the or­der of the day, to be fol­lowed by mar­tial arts films from Hong Kong.

There ap­peared to be a per­cep­tion that Asian films with a con­tem­po­rary set­ting, films about fam­i­lies, such as those made by Ya­su­jiro Ozu, the mas­ter of the Ja­panese fam­ily film, were ‘‘ too Asian’’ for the rest of the world, so it’s in­ter­est­ing that in the re­cent Sight and Sound poll of in­ter­na­tional film crit­ics and di­rec­tors, the di­rec­tor’s poll was topped by Ozu’s sublime Tokyo Story (1953).

Many ad­mir­ers of Ja­panese cinema be­lieve that Hirokazu Koreeda is the nat­u­ral heir to Ozu, cit­ing films such as No­body Knows (2003) and Still Walk­ing (2008). The di­rec­tor’s lat­est, I Wish, is also very Ozu-like in that its main char­ac­ters are a cou­ple of pre­co­cious lit­tle boys of the kind Ozu fea­tured in I was Born, But . . . (1932) and Good Morn­ing (1959).

Un­til their par­ents di­vorced, Koichi (Koki Maeda) and his younger brother Ryu (Ohshiro Maeda) were in­sep­a­ra­ble. Now Koichi lives with his mother, who has gone back to live with her par­ents in a pro­vin­cial town lo­cated close to an ac­tive vol­cano, while Ryu lives in the city with his cheer­fully im­pov­er­ished fa­ther, a would-be mu­si­cian. As far as the par­ents are con­cerned, the mar­riage is over, but the broth­ers can’t ac­cept the sta­tus quo and des­per­ately want to be to­gether again.

As they talk long-dis­tance on their mo­bile phones it be­comes clear that Ryu has the bet­ter deal. At least he’s in the city, not in some iso­lated back­wa­ter, and he seems to have more friends than his big brother, in­clud­ing some pro­tec­tive girls slightly older than he is.

For Koichi, then, a re­union is all the more ur­gent, and he seizes the chance when he hears a tall story that, if you are at the spot where two bul­let trains pass by each other, your wish will come true. Ac­cord­ingly, Koichi and Ryu plan to meet at the place where the trains pass, and per­suade their friends to ac­com­pany them on a jour­ney of which their par­ents would def­i­nitely dis­ap­prove.

Their story is told in a leisurely film that takes time to make var­i­ous di­gres­sions from the main nar­ra­tive — for ex­am­ple, ex­plor­ing the world of Koichi’s grand­fa­ther and his el­derly friends and the mak­ing of a par­tic­u­lar kind of cake, and also the am­bi­tions of Megumi (Kara Uchida), the old­est of Ryu’s friends, who wants to be­come an ac­tress like her mother was be­fore she gave it up to be­come a bar­tender.

Koreeda’s char­ac­ters are all sym­pa­thetic. He doesn’t de­monise the par­ents who have given their sons such dis­tress — on the con­trary, each of them clearly has a good rea­son for the de­ci­sion they’ve taken to live apart. And the writer-di­rec­tor is very good on small de­tails, such as the vol­canic ash that is such a pres­ence in the pro­vin­cial town.

There ap­pears to be a good deal of im­pro­vi­sa­tion in the di­a­logue de­liv­ered by the chil­dren, and at times the film is edited (by the di­rec­tor) as though it were a doc­u­men­tary. In any event, I Wish is a de­light­ful ex­pe­ri­ence, sur­pris­ingly un­sen­ti­men­tal given the theme, and an ex­cel­lent ex­am­ple of the work of one of the bet­ter di­rec­tors work­ing in Ja­pan to­day. STARRY Starry Night, an adaptation of a pop­u­lar il­lus­trated book by Tai­wanese Jimmy Liao, is a lav­ish vari­a­tion on a sim­i­lar theme: the ef­fect un­happy marriages have on chil­dren, though in this case the pro­tag­o­nists aren’t sib­lings. In fact, they’re much closer to the chil­dren fea­tured in Wes An­der­son’s Moonrise King­dom, with which this film shares sev­eral el­e­ments.

Thir­teen-year-old Mei (Josie Xu) adores her grand­fa­ther, a Dis­ney-like char­ac­ter who lives in an iso­lated cottage in a for­est and makes wooden toys. Life with her par­ents, who are al­ways bick­er­ing and who even­tu­ally an­nounce a di­vorce, is painful for the teenager, who fan­ta­sises that her toys lit­er­ally come to life — a cue for much elab­o­rate com­put­er­gen­er­ated work. She be­friends an­other loner, Jay (Eric Lin), a new boy at her school who is bul­lied be­cause he’s artis­tic, and, af­ter Grand- fa­ther’s in­evitable demise, the two chil­dren run off to the for­est to find his cottage.

Di­rec­tor Tom Shu-Yu Lin has elab­o­rated at great length on this es­sen­tially sim­ple ma­te­rial and, though much of the film is vis­ually very hand­some, a lot of it is over­done in a pe­cu­liarly in­sis­tent way. There’s heav­ily sym­bolic ref­er­ence to a miss­ing piece in the jig­saw puz­zle on which Mei is con­stantly work­ing and an epi­logue set some years later in Paris un­nec­es­sar­ily un­der­lines the whim­si­cal, bor­der­line su­per­nat­u­ral, el­e­ments of the film.

At the core, there are two very good per­for­mances from the chil­dren, whose por­trayal of ado­les­cent awk­ward­ness and frus­tra­tion is spot on. As in An­der­son’s film, scenes in­volv­ing the runaways are del­i­cately and on the whole quite beau­ti­fully han­dled. TAI Chi 0, by con­trast, is the kind of Asian film Western au­di­ences are sup­posed to em­brace. Per­son­ally, I’ve seen enough mar­tial arts movies to last a life­time and this very lav­ish pro­duc­tion serves only to re­in­force that point of view. The ap­proach is more joc­u­lar than usual, which is a wel­come ad­di­tion to the mix, but, de­spite an ob­vi­ously big bud­get, di­rec­tor Stephen Fung and his team re­ally haven’t come up with any­thing ter­ri­bly new.

Yuan Xiaochao’s hero, Luchan, is con­sid­ered to be a freak by his peers be­cause he was born with a growth on his head which, when ac­ti­vated, turns him into a fight­ing ma­chine. But he’s thought to be doomed to an early death un­less he can mas­ter the art of tai chi (don’t ask!) so he trav­els to the moun­tain vil­lage of Chen to learn the art from lo­cals who prove un­will­ing to teach him. Be­fore long the vil­lage is in­vaded by a force led by a British of­fi­cer and us­ing a gi­ant me­chan­i­cal war ma­chine, so of course the vil­lagers are grate­ful for Luchan’s help in con­fronting the in­vader.

Yes, it’s the same old story, but the stag­ing is un­de­ni­ably spec­tac­u­lar and if you like this sort of thing it de­liv­ers the goods on a grand scale. The jokes in­clude in­tro­duc­ing some cast mem­bers with on­screen cap­tions, so that the ac­tor play­ing the hero’s fa­ther, when first seen, is ac­com­pa­nied not only by his name, Andy Lau, but a re­minder that he di­rected the In­fer­nal Af­fairs tril­ogy. And talk­ing of trilo­gies, this was sup­posed to be the first of one but now, I gather, will be fol­lowed merely by a se­quel, Tai Chi Hero, which is set to open on Oc­to­ber 25. So if you like this one you won’t have long to wait; the trailer for Hero ac­com­pa­nies the end­less end-credit crawl.

I Wish

Koki Maeda in

Tai Chi 0

Yuan Xiaochao in

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